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“Big Putin gave orders to little Putin.” And the instructions were to provoke what could become in effect a second Ukraine crisis in Europe, but in Kosovo. Who said this? Read on.

A renewed Kosovo conflict would be smaller in scale than the war in Ukraine and lack the specter of nuclear weapons. But it would take place closer to the geographic heart of the European Union — in the Balkans, not far from the place that once sparked World War I — and cast doubt on the bloc’s values, resolve and credibility. 

“Big Putin” — that is, Russian President Vladimir Putin — would therefore be delighted. “Little Putin,” in this framing, is Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who could spark a new Kosovo conflict. (If the parameter were physical size, of course, the adjectives would have to be flipped: Vucic towers above Putin.)

The geopolitical line-up would be much the same in both confrontations. The EU and NATO would presumably support one side (Kosovo), Russia and China the other (Serbia). 

There are other parallels. Putin and Vucic both lead Orthodox Slavic nations which emerged from communist federal states — the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia — that broke up after the Cold War. Russians and Serbs, moreover, consider one another ethnic and religious kin. Both nations nurture victimhood as well as superiority complexes, and grievances against neighboring countries that want to be independent but are home to many ethnic Russians or Serbs. In the name of protecting kinfolk, Russia and Serbia have, variously, behaved as aggressive irredentists. 

In the 1990s, Serbia, under its former leader Slobodan Milosevic, supported the ethnic Serbs in Bosnia fighting against (mostly Muslim) Bosniaks, then terrorized ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a Serbian province at the time. Milosevic was later tried before a criminal tribunal of the United Nations on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity — but was found dead in his prison cell before the verdict. Putin got into the game soon after: attacking Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014 and again this year with full force.

Serbs and Russians also agree in their psychological definition of the enemy. In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia in an effort to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Albanian majority in Kosovo — NATO maintains a peacekeeping force in Kosovo to this day. As a result, Serbs don’t view the transatlantic alliance kindly. Like Russians, they tend to distrust the entire West by default — two thirds of Serbs, for example, blame NATO for the Ukraine war, only 10% point the finger at Russia. 

Putin, for his part, regards NATO as the Evil Empire, and as little more than a front for his ultimate foe, the US. To justify his paranoia about Western encroachment — and thereby his own aggression — he invariably brings up the NATO bombing of Serbia in his rants.

Starting in the mid-2000s, and to the chagrin of Russia and Serbia, both Ukraine and Kosovo took steps toward freedom and the EU. Ukraine had its Orange Revolution in 2004-05 and the so-called Euromaidan uprising in 2013-14. Still, Putin denies it’s anything but a part of Russia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. But Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo and — backed by Russia and China — blocks Kosovo’s accession to the UN and other international bodies.

There’s a big difference between the two conflicts, though. Ukraine wants to join the EU (and recently became a candidate), whereas Putin’s Russia wants “to destroy” the bloc, as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put it. By contrast, Serbia and Kosovo both want to become EU members, along with the other countries of the former Yugoslavia that aren’t already in the bloc. 

This means that both Kosovo and Serbia have to behave themselves. They have to comply with the EU’s standards about the rule of law, democracy and clean governance. And they have to make an effort to settle their fight. No country with open territorial disputes can join the EU. 

Now, though, another big question mark hangs above Serbs, Kosovars and all Europeans. And the immediate cause is risibly banal.

It’s to do with license plates, and ID cards. In a show of allegiance, many ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo have kept license plates and IDs issued to them by Serbia. Now Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, wants to introduce a law that requires them to get proper Kosovar plates and cards. 

That was enough to cause protests and gunshots this week. Nobody was injured. But both Belgrade and Moscow immediately whipped out their propaganda bullhorns and hyperventilated that Kosovo was planning to expel or even kill ethnic Serbs. One member of Serbia’s parliament remarked that Serbia may “be forced to begin the denazification of the Balkans,” echoing Putin’s ludicrous but frightening hallucinations about Ukraine before his invasion.

Both Pristina and Belgrade immediately got a talking to by the EU and the US. In response, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has delayed the license-plate and ID law until September, to give everybody time to cool off. But guns are cocked, metaphorically and probably literally.

So who did say that “Big Putin gave orders to Little Putin”? It was Vucic himself — being sarcastic. He was trying to mock the narrative Kurti is spinning that this Balkan confrontation is a proxy reenactment of the Ukraine war.

In many ways, Vucic looks the part — he used to be Milosevic’s spokesman, and now governs in the populist strongman style of Hungary’s Viktor Orban. And if Vucic plays the part of Putin, that would turn Kurti into the analog of Ukraine’s heroic president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. This storyline would all but force the EU, US, NATO and the entire West to take Kosovo’s side. 

It’s encouraging that Vucic is pooh-poohing that framing. This suggests he views himself as something other than Little Putin, and that he may actually want to avoid bloodshed, perhaps even plan a joint European future for both countries, in which their borders no longer matter so much, and all people in the region can live in peace, dignity and freedom. If so, let Vucic and Kurti prove their goodwill now. Too much is at stake to start yet another war — over license plates, or anything.

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

Germany’s Anti-Digital Law Is a Case Study in Stunting Progress: Andreas Kluth

• What to Expect From NATO’s New Strategic Concept: James Stavridis

Have Putin’s Ukraine Goals Shrunk or Expanded?: Leonid Bershidsky

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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